On August 1, thousands of women marched throughout South Africa against gender-based violence in The Total Shutdown march. One of the woman who marched in Pretoria to the Union Buildings was rape survivor and gender activist, Romila Harris. The Daily Vox spoke to her about her work as an activist.
In 2006 I was mugged, brutally beaten up and raped and I chose as an Indian woman in the veld in Laudium to never speak of my rape. Not only was I married to a prominent man in society, I was also the mother of two little girls. So I chose to never speak of my rape. For me this fight is very important because as Indian women, and it’s not a secret, we were grown up to talk about sex. It was never mentioned in our homes and our lives. That infiltrated for many generations down and it’s still happening today even with all the atrocities of women abuse staring in our faces, it’s still hidden. As much as we would like to say it’s not, it is because I’m working with it. That is why my work as an Indian woman is so important to bring about the awareness and to say to our women you are not alone. We are here for you and we accept you and love you no matter what you’ve been through. And you are worthy to be fought for.
We were brought up very spiritually and that the man is the head of the home in all religions. The concept that the man is the head of the house and we could not fight against his authority. We have come to a place where we find ourselves lost in that myth. We have come to a point where we are confused and have come to a point where the world says stand up and fight but we were brought up to believe your husband, your father and your brother are the superiors of the household. For many many Indian women and I’ve kept hearing this from mothers: “I took a slap for thirty years. I took abuse for thirty years. I took a drunk man for thirty years. What’s wrong with you?” That is the thinking of our society.
My greatest challenge is we do not have enough support structures. We do not have enough help from government to say if I’ve been through a trauma right now I don’t need SAPS or victim empowerment or CPF tomorrow or the day after. That’s typical, as shown by the Mumtaz Hayat case I am working on at the moment. Till today SAPS have never offered her counselling, CPF have never visited at home. Nobody cares.
That is my problem when I look at a post, I will start searching for the woman right now. That is one of my greatest challenges. We do not have enough support structures from government for women who have experienced trauma on a daily basis. We need our laws to change. Our justice system fails us daily. Saps do not to their jobs properly. Our justice system fails our women and children daily.
I work privately for the mere fact that if I’m bound to any organisation I would have a mandate and a code of conduct. It would be mandated for me to work in certain communities. I would be accountable to the organisation. So I work privately and between communities in Ennerdale, Eldorado Park, Lenasia and Lenasia South. So I’m not might working for any organisation so that I can work for many people at a time. And that is why I do what I do. I do have members of CPF who work with me but I prefer to work on my own.
For me personally, it was a hair raising experience [being a part of The Total Shutdown] because after 12 years I was back in Pretoria to tell my rapist: You raped me and left me HIV positive but I am back fighting. That’s what it mean to me. For me it meant that we have women in solidarity fighting one cause with one voice and one mission and purpose.
You know as women we need a revolution. We need an uprising like never before. We need to bring South Africa to a grinding halt. Like our women who have done for many years on Women’s Day for their rights and for their independence, we need to cause an uprising and to bring South Africa to its knees and say we matter. Our lives matter. Our women and children matters. Take us seriously and change your laws. Bring back some sort of justice for our women and children.
Two things: we need a paradigm shift in many communities. Let’s be honest because the black community were brought up similar to us. We need laws to be changed and stricter laws that send a message to perpetrators who are mainly men that if you rape and abuse that gender-based violence is serious. And you will pay for your crimes. That’s what we need.
Featured image by Nyiko Shikwambane.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.